Can a foreign bug beat Cat's claw?

2009-02-09 00:00

While it looks pretty draped over walls and used as a pot plant, the Cat’s claw creeper is highly destructive to trees indigenous to South Africa, living off them as a parasite. This is why there are high hopes for a South American bug, which has been introduced for the first time in Pietermaritzburg, to control it.

Cat’s claw (Macfadyena unguis-cati) is a tropical vine native to the rain forests of South America.

It was originally introduced into South Africa as an ornamental plant because of its ability to grow quickly, withstand freezing temperatures or drought, and blossom into beautiful yellow trumpet-shaped flowers in the spring.

But this pretty plant is invading the country’s forests, plantations and farms, destroying orchids and killing trees by wrapping its creeping vines around them and smothering them, making it necessary to become a focus of biological control.

“The reason why the plant does so well in South Africa is because it is not indigenous to the country; therefore, the bugs that would normally feed on it and control it do not exist here,” said Anthony King, a biocontrol researcher from Pretoria.

“It is pretty much impossible to remove mechanically because it has a large number of tubas that attach right down into the ground making it very difficult to remove each one.

“We introduced tingids (carvalotingis visendi), a sap-sucking insect, which removes the chlorophyll from the plant and slows down the growth of the plant eventually killing it,” he said. King says that this method is more economical than attempting a mechanical removal.

These bugs are native to South America and have been quarantined and placed under trials and observations for at least six years to ensure that they are host-specific (they only feed off the weed), which eventually controls the growth of the weed and allows other flora a chance to survive.

The tingids have been released on the farm of Nora Choveaux, a botanist who runs a certified organic farm selling lettuce and salad packs in Murray Road, near Hayfields. Choveaux says that the vine is destructive to her trees.

“This weed is quite rampant and difficult to control. It attaches itself to the root of the tree and wraps itself all the way around it, smothering it,” said Choveaux.

“We had a massive fire in August last year and one of the reasons why the fire was so bad was because of the Cat’s claw.

“What would normally have been a ground fire took all our trees down because the Cat’s claw wrapped itself around the trees, it caught alight and the fire spread right to the top of the trees,” she said.

Although the tingids have been introduced throughout the country, it has only been used locally to treat Choveaux’s farm as well as a section of the Botanical Gardens so far.

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